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Iranians flee to Turkey as crackdown continues


In Iran, a crackdown on dissent continues long after security forces violently suppressed protests sparked by the 2022 death of a young woman in police custody. Today, many people facing the threat of imprisonment have fled the country. NPR's Peter Kenyon met three Iranians who came to Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: I met photojournalist Vahid Mirzaei in an apartment in Istanbul. The 32-year-old says it was a photograph he took of Iran's president, Ebrahim Raisi, that first got him in trouble. It was after floods in 2022 had devastated communities in Tehran province. And Mirzaei was on the ground documenting the damage when he heard that Raisi was on his way. He had photographed presidents before, but he says there was something different about Raisi. To him, he always seemed unsure, a little bit lost. That impression was reinforced when he saw Raisi's bodyguards physically moving him here and there.

VAHID MIRZAEI: (Through interpreter) I saw him surrounded by five or six bodyguards, and I saw several hands on him. They were guiding the president of the country this way and that, moving him like he was a puppet.

KENYON: After Mirzaei's photograph of that scene was published, he says the president's office warned him to delete the photo or face harsh consequences. Mirzaei says it happened again after the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being detained for not wearing the Islamic hijab to their liking. Mirzaei was taking photos at a book signing event that was also attended by journalist Nazila Maroufian, who had been arrested after she interviewed Amini's father. Mirzaei says he got the same warnings after that, telling him he wasn't allowed to take pictures of people who had been banned.

Mirzaei says, after that, he began to get death threats, and he decided to leave. For 37-year-old Shadi Asadpoor, the details were different, but the result was the same. She's a theater director, playwright and teacher. She was preparing to take her drama students to the stage around the time the protests started, but she says the theater and her career were soon shut down.

SHADI ASADPOOR: (Through interpreter) I had to suddenly leave theater - a passion that I had found all I ever wanted in life, and this made me depressed. I felt as if I had nothing else left in this life - nothing else to do, almost like a forced retirement. It was clear for me that I was going to have hard, dark days ahead of me.

KENYON: The crackdown has also swept up Iranians who took no part in the anti-government protests. Thirty-two-year-old Masha (ph) asked that her family name not be used, as she's concerned for the safety of family members still in Iran. Masha says she's never taken part in any protest, but the government drove her out of the country anyway by cutting off internet access.

MASHA: Most of my work was online, and I was making money, like, through internet. So when this protest happens, the whole internet outage literally cut it out. And I had to decide whether to lose my job or move out of the country.

KENYON: Masha says she's not sure she'll be able to stay in Turkey, but she sees no future in Iran under current conditions. Photojournalist Vahid Mirzaei says one way he tries to explain the difference he sees between Iran and the U.S. is to reflect on the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. He says he can't imagine the trial in that case ever happening in Iran.

MIRZAEI: (Through interpreter) I'll give you an example, and that is George Floyd's devastating murder. The police officer gets arrested and sent to prison, and the one who took that video receives an award for bravery. In Iran, it's just the other way around. Whoever documents the facts goes to prison, and the one who has committed a crime and killed a human being is awarded a medal.

KENYON: He says he hopes that will change, but he's not seeing any sign of it yet.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Peter Kenyon
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.